(This is part 2 of a 3-part series on Sam Bradford's career at Oklahoma, a career that has led him to being a signature away from being the #1 overall pick in the NFL draft. Part 1 is here.)
First, let's get some funk going on in the background while we make this funky journey... Dazz, I'm looking at you...
Perfect. In part 1 of this series, we went chronicled Sam Bradford's rise from an above average high school QB prospect to the end of his red shirt freshman year. Oh, and Olivia Munn. That's a good starting point after the jump, methinks.
Olivia, would you get this one going?
Thank you, you beautiful, beautiful woman. Now where we, oh yeah, Sam Bradford. Hey, back down here, loverboy.
Breaking in - Bradford's redshirt freshman season in 2007
So, Oklahoma had just finished a tough stretch in which they lost Adrian Peterson to injury, Rhett Bomar to scandal and the Oregon game to bad referees. They were due for retribution.
Throughout the spring, it looked like Bradford was edging out Joey Halzle and true freshman and Keith Nichol for the starting spot. There was plenty of pressure on the decision since Oklahoma was coming out of the scandal a year prior and was locked in the top 10 in unofficial polls across the country. The decision was, essentially, a decision that would impact the future of the football program for at least two years if not longer. Some were saying the QB position was the weakest spot on the team. It was truly a make or break call.
Despite a perceived slight lead on the competition, Bradford wasn't being handed anything. Throughout the offseason, the three top candidates were all taking equal reps, making sure Head Coach Bob Stoops had as much info on all three before he made one of the most critical decisions of his tenure with the Sooners.
Well, on Aug. 21, Stoops who would be leading Oklahoma to start the season against the mighty, fearless, unbelievably talented University of North Texas (emphasis mine): Sam the man. The game was just eleven days away, and with Oklahoma ranked eighth in both preseason polls, there was plenty of pressure on Bradford not just to prove himself but to support Stoops by performing against UNT, one of the most respected programs in the history of college football (not really editorializing - this is just fact). After the game ended, the AP write-up's lead read:
Sam Bradford's debut as Oklahoma's starting quarterback couldn't have looked much better if he had scripted it himself.
It wasn't hyperbole. In throwing for 350 yards in the first two quarters alone, Bradford broke the OU record for most passing yards in a half. It took all of 32 seconds for Bradford to throw his first TD as the Sooners' QB (to TE Jermaine Gresham, incidentally). It was as dominant of a performance as a quarterback, let alone a redshirt freshman quarterback in his first game at one of the most powerful programs in the country, could produce. To be fair, UNT made it a fight to the finish, scoring a TD to open the fourth quarter, but Oklahoma was able to eke out the victory...79-10...moving on...
Oklahoma settled into their new identity after the week 1 blowout. They went on to win their next three against Miami (FL), Utah St. and Tulsa by a combined 167-37. The AP poll had them at #3. Bradford had thrown 14 TDs and just a pair of interceptions, tossing at a 78.125 completion percentage. He was rolling, and so were the Sooners. With the Rhett Bomar scandal behind them and Adrian Peterson making headlines as a rookie in Minnesota, Oklahoma fans started to get hungry for #7 Texas. Sure, the game against Colorado came first, but Colorado was just 2-2 and had lost to Arizona St. and Florida St. It was a tune-up. It was a rehearsal. It was a sure thing. Right?
(Bradford walks off the field at 0:46, and be careful, notorious dumbass Jim Knox makes an appearance at the end. If you watch Texas Rangers games, Knox is the guy who likes to interview high school girls.)
By the time the sun went down, Sept. 29, Norman was in shock. A couple of hours before, everything was on track: Oklahoma went into the 4th quarter up 24-10 in Boulder. It wasn't the blowout win they had gotten used to in the first four weeks of the season, but it was a win nonetheless. At least that's how they played. Oklahoma literally stopped playing their game. Bradford threw the ball just three times in the quarter and had one of them intercepted. This for a team that was averaging 310 yards per game through the air. Bradford's line in the box score would read 8/19, 112 yds, 1 TD, 2 INTs. It was a horrible game by any standards. And like the linked reaction story states, this wasn't the year they expected to run the table, but to lose to Colorado wasn't expected either. It was obvious their minds had left the game and jumped a week ahead to Dallas where they would face Texas in the annual Red River Shootout. But the rivalry, the pageantry, the statement of the game had just been quadruplified (that's right. It's quadrupled + -afied. Serious energy.)
Texas too had been caught that weekend against Kansas St., leaving a BCS bid nearly out of reach for the Longhorns. For Oklahoma, though, the season wasn't as big as the message a win against Texas would deliver, a message that would haunt (read: piss off) Texas fans for the next four years (read: two years): you won't beat Sam Bradford.
Again, it was the Associated Press that hit the nail on the head:
Since he's only 19 and was playing just his sixth college game, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford can be excused for thinking he can do things most quarterbacks wouldn't even try.
Like calling an audible on third-and-14 from his own 12 amid the roar of Texas fans. Or going long on third down to a guy who spent the last few series getting treatment for a sore hamstring.
Then again, Bradford is proving to be not-your-ordinary quarterback.
Bradford's 21/32, 3 TD performance propelled Oklahoma to a 28-21 victory in front of 80,000 rabid fans:
BTW, one of my favorite aspects of the game is the symmetry. Half of the tickets go to Texas fans, the other to Oklahoma's. It creates great mini-environments for some great visuals - imagine Bradford starting a drive from inside his 20 with Texas fans surrounding him to his sides and behind him with the Texas defense mugging him down, or a Longhorn rumbling into an endzone right in front of the Sooner faithful. As it was, Bradford had the better moments that October day, and the contrast between his performance and that of another red shirt freshman two years prior couldn't have been more obvious.
Oklahoma would get another huge win the next week against a Chase Daniel's #11 Missouri Tiger team (Oklahoma was ranked 6th at the time). That week, Bradford made the list for the Maxwell Award, given to the country's top player at any position. Between Oklahoma's return to the top echelon of the college football world and Sam Bradford's arrival, Oklahoma was riding high. They bulldozed through their next three games, including a masterful performance by Bradford against Texas A&M in which he went 21-30 throwing 5 touchdowns. Sooner fans were riding the Bradford train, and why not?
The Week 11 AP poll had Oklahoma at #3 with a 1st place vote. They were in the championship hunt. But nobody knew how much it hinged on Bradford until he wasn't there.
In the next game, against Texas Tech, Bradford suffered a slight concussion on the second series trying to make a tackle after a Sooner fumble. He wouldn't make it back on to the field. Neither would the consistency in the offense. Oklahoma managed just two field goals in the second and third quarters against a mediocre Tech defense. Backup Joey Halzle just couldn't do what Bradford could - produce.
Bradford would return for the Bedlam matchup against Oklahoma St. the next week, but the championship dream was gone. Wins against the Cowboys and again over Missouri in the Big XII Championship were as much consolation as they would get. In a season in which they beat Texas and a strong Missouri team (twice), the Sooners dropped two very winnable games and thus their ticket to the top.
In the Fiesta Bowl, Bradford took a backseat to West Virginia's rushing attack. QB Pat White and RB Noel Devine combined for 258 rushing yards en route to a 48-28 victory, but the story had already been written - Oklahoma let the season get away from them.
Sooner spectacle - Bradford's historic 2008 season
With the lessons of 2007 behind them, the 2008 Sooners were gearing up for a run to the top of college football, but off-field issues were crowding the front pages instead of pictures of Bradford, Jermaine Gresham and Gerald McCoy.
OU landed a solid QB prospect in New Mexican Landry Jones, but his arrival meant Keith Nichol was no longer part of Oklahoma's plans - he transferred soon after to Michigan State. The bigger concern was Josh Jarboe, a premier WR recruit who, like so many other WRs before him, made headlines off the field as well as on them. Jarboe was arrested for a stolen weapon, threatening his future before he even made it to his first practice. Well, the charges were reduced and Stoops gave the kid a second chance. (Obvious flash forward - Jarboe makes a YouTube rap video about being arrested for a stolen weapon, gets kicked off the team. Never would have seen that coming...) In June, offensive tackle Phil Loadholt was arrested for having an open alcoholic container while driving on the interstate. At the end of the summer, OU lost LB Austin Box to a knee injury. The Sooners were riding an offseason rollercoaster ahead of an expectation-laden season. While there were plenty of question marks surrounding the team (Could they keep their eyes on the prize? Would rival Texas get revenge?), there were none next to their QB, and it showed as soon as they took the field.
The Sooners opened the season against Chattanooga and showed no rust - they scored on their first seven drives of the game as Bradford went 17/22 before the backups came in. A 57-2 victory, and the Sooners were off and running. Their next two games were crack for NFL scouts as Bradford would face fellow NFL QB prospects Tony Pike, a backup QB at the time, and Jake Locker (from Cincinnatii and Washington, respectively), but Bradford came out on top, leading his bulldozing offense through both games unscathed. In those two games, Oklahoma scored 107 points and gave up just 40, and many of those were mop-up points (OU was up 41-0 over Washington before the Huskies scored...).
Their first real test of the season came in week 4 against #24 TCU. The Sooners had climbed up to the #2 spot in the rankings behind consensus #1 USC and was looking to continue their offensive onslaught against a highly respectable Horned Frog defense. By the end of the game, people were wondering how good this Oklahoma offense really was. Behind Bradford's 411 yards of passing and 4 TDs, Oklahoma would give up one late touchdown in a 35-10 smackdown. Meanwhile, Oregon St. had just shocked USC 16-13 opening the door for Oklahoma to take the top spot in the polls - it was the first time they had been atop the landscape of college football since 2003.
Things were as they should be, the Sooner fans were thinking. They were averaging 18.75 points... in the first quarter. Bradford looked unstoppable. But here was the trap game. A lowly Baylor team that was the perennial doormat of the Big XII, but didn't that just even help Oklahoma look past the game even more? Whether it was Bradford's and the other Sooner's experience of 2007 or some other factor, the answer was "no." Again, Oklahoma would come out explosively (28-0 at the end of the first quarter), and not look back. It set up, yet again, another episode in the great Texas-Oklahoma rivalry.
#1 vs. #5. Bradford vs. McCoy. Stoops vs. Brown. There were enough angles to this game to make Will Hunting confused. The game did not disappoint. In front of a record 92,182 fans, Oklahoma would jump out to a 14-3 lead, threatening to walk away with the game; Texas was not about to let that happen. The Longhorns scored 17 points in the second half (including a Hunter Lawrence FG as time expired) to make it a 21-20 game at halftime.
Bradford had thrown three TDs and one interception (which set up the aforementioned FG). He knew the game was on his shoulders. Over the next quarter and change, Bradford would guide the Sooners to a 35-30 lead - it wouldn't last. Texas scored 15 points over the last 11:30 of the game and threw an aggresive defense that stymied OU's running attack to win 45-35, the highest ever score in the rivalry's history.
When it was over, there was plenty of blame to go around, but the large majority was directed at Stoops who had elected to fake one punt earlier in the game, but punt on a 4th and 2 with the best offense in college football at almost the exact same spot on the field. With a loss to Texas (who would take Oklahoma's #1 ranking), the Sooners, and Bradford, would have to win out to have a shot at the national championship. So they did. Yeah, it was that easy. Seriously. No, really. I mean it. For real. Ok, fine, it wasn't, but they sure played like it was. Just look at the post-Texas run Oklahoma went on:
W vs. #16 Kansas (45-31), W @ Kansas St. (58-35), W vs. Nebraska (62-28), W @ Texas A&M (66-28), W vs. #2 Texas Tech (65-21), W @ #12 Oklahoma St. (61-41), W vs. Missouri in the Big XII Championship (62-21)...
In the seven games after they lost to Texas, Oklahoma was scoring just shy of 60 points per game. That is stupid. Worse than video game stupid. By destroying every team all season except Texas, it set up what should have brought down the BCS: a 9-way argument for the two spots in the championship.
Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech had only lost to each other. USC had the Oregon St. loss on its resume. Alabama had just lost its first game of the season to Florida, who also had just one loss. Penn St. was making a bid for a Big Ten team in the final having gone 11-1. And dreamweavers Utah and Boise St. were both 12-0. The BCS would chew up seven of them, and give just two the chance to play for a national championship.
With the polls ranking Oklahoma and Florida #s 1 and 2 (alternatively) and having won their conference championships, the Sooners and Gators met in the FedEx Bowl, or whatever name they wanted to call it that year.
It was a media orgy with Tebow, who had won the Heisman the year prior, facing off against Bradford, who would win the Heisman for 2008. It would be an ugly, scrappy game for both.
Unbelievably, it was a scoreless game at the end of the first quarter as Florida provided Bradford with the most pressure he had faced all season and Oklahoma's D limiting Tebow and Percy Harvin. Both teams would trade early TDs in the second before Oklahoma would give the game away. A Gerald McCoy interception led to Oklahoma sitting with a 1st and goal at the 9-yard-line. Four rushes by Chris Brown later, and Florida had the ball back. Sooner fans were furious that Bradford didn't get a chance to throw in a red zone series. He would, and they wouldn't be any happier. After a 45-yard scamper by Percy Harvin, Oklahoma forced a punt that ended with a touchback. With just 2:32 on the clock before halftime, Bradford engineered his best drive of the game going 8/10 and setting up a 1st and goal from the 6-yd. line with just 6 seconds on the clock. Again, Oklahoma would leave the field without a point to show for their efforts. Bradford tossed a rocket to Manuel Johnson who couldn't hold on, and the tip was intercepted at the 3.
Missed opportunities haunted the Sooners' first half; Florida, and Tim Tebow, would not suffer a similar fate. Florida would outscore Oklahoma 17-7 on the back of Tim Tebow who finished with 109 rushing yards en route to their second BCS Championship in three years. For Bradford, it was time to take stock.
He had just led one of the greatest offenses college football had ever seen. He had won the Heisman. He had already cemented his legacy in Norman. But he hadn't won a title. He hadn't done enough to get his name into the top echelon of Sooner greats who had helped hoist one of Oklahoma's 7 national titles. He hadn't helped his coach, "Big Game Bob", out of the cloud of criticism he was enduring for being 0-3 in the BCS Championship since 2003. And, arguably most ennerving, he had lost to Texas.
It was a decision that was tough for the media to predict. Oklahoma would obviously be in the hunt for another championship berth (they would be ranked 3rd behind Florida and Texas, eventually), but Bradford was being mocked by esteemed, venerable Rams bloggers to go #1 overall...
Of course, we all know what happened. Bradford stayed. Norman rejoiced. Everything was right in the world. Sure, it would be nearly impossible for Bradford to duplicate his record breaking production in 2008, but Oklahoma didn't need him to break records. They just needed Sam Bradford to play.
In part 3: Bradford in 2009 and 2010 - the injury, the return, and the climb back to the top